It was a year ago that I was sitting looking out of the window, possibly worrying, and an email popped into my inbox from the university research office entitled, “PhD Examination Outcome”. Obviously, before I opened it, I felt sick, nervous and apprehensive. Yet, I had passed. It was over. No more teeth-grinding stress in the final revision stage. In spite of often being viewed as one of the most positive academics on Twitter I can’t describe how awful that revisions stage was for me. Nevertheless, I was now a Doctor of Philosophy. I could call the bank – and more importantly the council tax office – and tell them to call me doctor when calling to have a go.
By the way, I don’t subscribe to this I have passed my viva therefore I’m a doctor thing. You’re one when the university says you are, preferably on graduation day. Anyway, I digress. One year on what has post-doc life been like?
Indeed, relief that it was over, but also regret. I was no longer linked with a university and that’s a big break. Cast out into the wilderness of job hunting can be difficult. After a short period of rejoicing, however, the first thing I wanted to do was get back at it with new research. I’m often reminded that a professor once said their PhD was now a doorstop and the best way to progress was with new material.
Having said that, within a few months I had mined my thesis for article material and submitted three pieces. One of which was accepted, one accepted with revisions and one rejected. I was pleased. Progress was being made.
The post-doc position rejections
I then had my first period of coming unstuck. I started applying for post-doc positions. Three applications and three rejections. I had to dig deep to stay positive. I could not help thinking, “I’m as good as, if not better, than the person who got it”. “What is going on?” (Internal applications?) The first thing to try and come to terms with was that rejection is common in academia and I should learn to accept it with good grace. Devoney Looser has written an excellent blog on dealing with rejection and the only thing to add is to take notice of this, try and understand rejection and deal with it in pro-active way.
Be pro-active in the face of negativity
I was then given the opportunity to lead an adult-education course that was based around my PhD. It was only three sessions, but it was a toe hold, a beginning. It was not without challenges, but who wants to stay in a comfort zone? Significantly it opened up more opportunities and I will be re-running the course at another university soon. In short, I sold myself, I became brand brass band. I sold this brand and made a few sales.
I also reflected on the post-doc vacancies position and considered what the role of a post-doc was? It was to produce publications and make impact. Having a paid position was a benefit, but, surely, I asked myself, it is a stage on the journey to a full-time post, not the destination. To this end I decided to crowdfund my own research. Surely, I thought, it is better to be moving forwards towards publication, and making a contribution to the scholarship, rather than dealing with the rejection of post-doc applications. I did feel a bit odd asking for what was private sponsorship. Like Haydn, perhaps? Nevertheless I also reasoned that there had to be an alternative to the traditional post-doc route.
I also volunteered for a research project at the RNCM. I start later this month (April). Apart from the career-development and CV enhancement opportunities that are well known, it is also a case of contributing and giving back to the community that educated me. On my graduation day I was struck by how much that ethos was valued. In addition it will help me cope with the strains of my current job. The key point, however, is that it is a positive and worthwhile thing to do.
This is tough. Keeping sane in a job I have grown out of and yet have to stay in to pay the bills is difficult. But I have to live, and I am not young enough to go running around the country on part-time contracts. I am prone to periods of extreme “grumpy old man syndrome”, I push through it. It has to be said: with a PhD I have, in effect, made myself unemployable in jobs in certain pay grades.
The only option is to keep moving forwards to what I want. I exercise, I plan new research, I stay off twitter when it’s ‘braggy’, or particularly ‘you were fantastic, darling.’ I network and I am always selling my brand. (There is a lot to be said for that notion, if a little business buzzword bingo.)
The year in review
Some success, some failure, some forward planning, and some innovation. The first post-doc year is a start. Getting a PhD is like learning to drive. You only really learn when you pass your test.